There were wholesale changes, followed by incremental progress. The hope for the Detroit Lions is that a new regime led by general manager Bob Quinn will continue where it left off in 2016. The Lions returned to the playoffs, got significant contributions from Quinn’s first draft class and, with a franchise quarterback already in place, appeared to lay a foundation for success.
One thing hasn’t changed, however. The Lions still haven’t won a playoff game since 1991, and they haven’t won a division title since ’93, letting one slip away last winter with three consecutive losses to end the season. So while coach Jim Caldwell’s even-keeled approach is appreciated in the locker room and seems to be a good fit with Quinn, Caldwell is facing a contract year — and a tougher schedule — with little job security.
There is no more debate about Matthew Stafford’s value. The only question in the offseason was just how much the 29-year-old quarterback would be paid as the Lions began negotiating a contract extension that may make him the league’s highest-paid player.
Stafford is coming off one of his best seasons. He passed for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, despite playing the last month with the middle finger on his throwing hand in a splint. Prior to that, he led the team to an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins. And he looked comfortable in his first full year with Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator, spreading the ball around in a controlled short passing attack.
What would make him even more comfortable this season would be an improved run game. The Lions ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing and didn’t have a back gain more than 70 yards in a game all season. But starter Ameer Abdullah is back after suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 2 last season, and he could form a dynamic tandem with Theo Riddick, a matchup nightmare out of the backfield who also was lost to injury late last season. (Riddick’s 80 receptions in 2015 tied for the lead among NFL running backs.) The emergence of Zach Zenner as a viable fill-in starter provides some depth, but if Abdullah can’t stay on the field, it’ll spell trouble again.
The biggest change in the Lions’ offensive outlook can be found in the trenches, where Quinn has completely revamped the offensive line. A year after investing heavily in the draft, the GM splurged in free agency this winter, signing Rick Wagner — one of the top right tackles on the market — and then outbidding Seattle to land right guard T.J. Lang, who’d been a mainstay for division rival Green Bay. The line was expected to be anchored by last year’s rookie first-round pick, Taylor Decker, who had an impressive debut at left tackle. But Decker required shoulder surgery in June and will not be ready to start the season, so the Lions traded with the Rams for former first-round pick Greg Robinson and signed former Bills second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio. Lang’s arrival adds some veteran leadership as well as a much-needed nasty streak, but Decker will be missed.
Last year’s big free-agent addition — receiver Marvin Jones Jr. — started fast while trying to fill the cleats of retired star Calvin Johnson. But after a 205-yard, two-TD day at Lambeau Field in Week 3, his per-game averages the rest of the season (three catches for 44 yards) didn’t measure up. That’s one reason the Lions targeted another big wideout in the draft, Northern Illinois’ Kenny Golladay, who’ll compete for the No. 3 role behind Jones and Golden Tate. The wild card remains Eric Ebron, an athletic tight end who may never validate his top-10 draft choice but who has steadily improved.
It’s a good thing the offense was able to extend drives last season, because the defense had far too much trouble getting off the field, ranking 31st in the league in third-down percentage. The Lions also finished last in opponent pass efficiency, tied for 30th in sacks and tied for 28th in takeaways.
Not surprisingly, the front office made adding defensive playmakers — and speed — a priority in the draft. The most notable addition is at linebacker, where first-round pick Jarrad Davis — a natural leader who wowed scouts at Florida’s pro day — is expected to step in immediately as a starter. The Lions cut ties with DeAndre Levy, who missed most of the last two seasons with injury, but they also got younger and deeper at the position. Davis’ arrival — Quinn pegged him as a middle linebacker — may push incumbent starter Tahir Whitehead outside. But there’s second-year pro Antwione Williams and an explosive hitter in rookie Jalen Reeves-Maybin pushing for jobs as well, while veteran Paul Worrilow, who spent last season in a backup role with Atlanta, provides some insurance and special-teams value.
Up front, everyone is expecting a bounce-back year from defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, who saw his sack production fall off dramatically as he battled a high ankle sprain for much of last season. If he can return to his Pro Bowl form, then the Lions might have enough depth on the line to create some havoc. Last year’s breakout performer, Kerry Hyder, who went from the practice squad to team sack leader in 2016, is ready for an expanded role, while Cornelius Washington was an efficient pass rusher in a limited role in Chicago. Veteran Haloti Ngata still can stuff the run on the interior, and A’Shawn Robinson came on strong late in his rookie season.
The secondary is where the most competition will be in training camp, as Quinn & Co. have made it clear that jobs are up for grabs. Darius Slay validated a hefty contract extension with a Pro Bowl-caliber season. But the rest of the cornerbacks got some company as the Lions added former Raiders first-round pick D.J. Hayden and two confident rookies in Teez Tabor and Jamal Agnew. Tabor, an instinctive, fluid cover man, should challenge holdover Nevin Lawson for time opposite Slay right away, while Agnew’s arrival might be bad news for Quandre Diggs, who struggled at nickel back last season. Regardless of who starts, the Lions look better equipped to handle the inevitable injuries in the secondary. Last year’s collection of backups and street free agents got picked apart down the stretch.
Free safety Glover Quin remains the Lions’ leader both on and off the field, in part because he never leaves it. Quin hasn’t missed a game since his rookie season in 2009 and was the only defensive player in the NFL to play every snap last season. Tavon Wilson was solid in run support last season after coming over from New England. Hard-hitting Miles Killebrew, who impressed in third-down situations as a rookie, is a breakout candidate who could steal some of Wilson’s snaps.
The special-teams units were a big reason why the Lions managed to sneak into the playoffs despite the late-season collapse. Matt Prater kicked a career-high 31 field goals, including 8-of-8 from 50 yards or more, to earn a Pro Bowl nod. Punter Sam Martin, who also serves as the holder on kicks, probably deserved a Pro Bowl invitation himself. He was a Pro Bowl alternate after breaking his own franchise record for net punting average (44.2 yards) for the fourth time in his four NFL seasons.
Quinn’s roster-churning work in 2016 helped transform the Lions’ coverage units into some of the league’s best. But the return game is a question mark, with last year’s dual returner, Andre Roberts, signing with the Falcons. Dwayne Washington may be the answer on kick returns, while Agnew figures to be in the mix on punt returns.
With Caldwell back for a fourth season, the Lions are counting on continuity as they try to make back-to-back playoff trips for the first time in more than two decades. But they also know that continuity won’t last long if they can’t build off last year’s progress. Stafford appears ready to take this franchise to the next level, but he’ll need more help from some of the younger playmakers. Caldwell’s staff has shown a knack for player development. This season, it’s imperative they show even more.